Cinderella slipper no longer fit for tournament-savvy Gonzaga


SALT LAKE CITY - They are no longer considered a Cinderella team in college basketball's biggest cotillion, no longer the little team from the little town with the cool sobriquet.

As the ninth seed in the NCAA West Regional, Gonzaga (24-8) will be the underdog when it plays top seed and second-ranked Arizona (26-3) tonight at the Huntsman Center.

But the Bulldogs - or 'Zags as they're called - don't quite look at themselves like that anymore.

"We're not scared of anybody in the country. We've played a lot of good teams, especially in the preseason," junior guard Blake Stepp said yesterday. "We played Kentucky pretty tough in Maui. It's not a thing that we're in awe of anybody anymore."

If anything, there are plenty of coaches around the country in awe of what Gonzaga has done the past five years in the NCAA tournament. It began with a run to the Elite Eight in 1999. It was followed by two straight Sweet 16 appearances.

A year ago, when Gonzaga played Wyoming in the opening round at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M., most figured on a second-round matchup with Arizona. It didn't happen because Gonzaga shot 29 percent in a 73-66 defeat.

"We weren't looking past Wyoming by any means," recalled Gonzaga coach Mark Few. "We just had one of those Halley's Comet type of nights when Blake and Dan [Dickau] had the worst shooting nights of their careers. There wasn't any looking past anyone or looking forward to anyone. It just didn't happen."

The coincidence of this year's bracket wasn't lost on Stepp. Not that Gonzaga was looking past Cincinnati before they met Thursday. But with a 74-69 first-round victory over the Bearcats behind them, Stepp and his teammates look forward to another shot at Arizona.

"It's kind of weird how it worked out," said Stepp. "I had fun playing them my freshman year, but I would have liked to have played them last year. It's always a tough game. We're excited to play them. We had a chance last year and we let them slip away."

Gonzaga beat Utah to open the Maui Invitational this year, then lost by one to Indiana and by eight to Kentucky. The win over Utah as well as a victory over North Carolina State in the Jimmy V Classic helped get Gonzaga in this year's tournament.

"This year's team has done a wonderful job of going out there and competing, especially in big-game situations," said Few.

With no stars like Dickau or Casey Calvary, Few has done a good job of putting the right combinations on the court. The most important move was convincing sophomore forward Ronny Turiaf that he would help the team more as a starter than coming off the bench.

Turiaf, who left his home in Martinique at age 14 to play with some junior national teams in France, has evolved into a scorer as well as a rebounder. He had 22 points and 10 rebounds against Cincinnati.

Arizona coach Lute Olson doesn't buy into Gonzaga's underdog image anymore.

"You take a look at a number of things," Olson said after the Wildcats beat 16th-seed Vermont, 80-51, in Thursday's opening round. "They're a team that doesn't beat themselves. They play very good defense. They're strong inside and they're good shooters."

The image of the program is changing, too.

While the face of Gonzaga basketball still might be its most famous alum, Utah Jazz star John Stockton, there is much wider recognition.

It has helped raise funds for a new 6,000-seat arena that was designed by the same architects who built Maryland's Comcast Center. They are no longer the little team from the little town with the cool sobriquet. The 'Zags have become the model for every mid-major program that aspires to be a little more than that.

"Other schools that are like us that are trying to achieve this level, I'm not saying they can't, but one of the mentalities we have is that we know we can," said athletic director Mike Roth. "It's a confidence level. It's 'The Little Engine That Could.' Just like the little engine didn't see itself as a little engine, we don't either."

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